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Katherine Gustafson

Katherine Gustafson

Posted: September 28, 2009 05:12 PM

Retail Takes on Slavery: The Body Shop Fights Child Sex Trafficking

What's Your Reaction:

Think slavery is over? Think our children are safe? A corporate campaign tells us all to think again.

Growing up during The Body Shop's heyday, I rarely entered a shopping mall without seeing the cosmetics retailer's familiar "No Animal Testing" signs. And no youthful spree was complete without bagging one of the mango shampoos or pomegranate body lotions that lined the shop's walls like shining, aromatic jewels.

Back then, the company was one of few touting ethical consumerism; under the direction of co-founder Anita Roddick, The Body Shop pioneered the idea that businesses can do well by doing good. The concept gained so much traction that angry customers just about stampeded when in 2006 Roddick sold her share of the company to French cosmetic giant L'Oreal, not known for an animal-kindness stance. But Roddick saw the move as a pragmatic one that would take the gospel of socially responsible business to new horizons.

And indeed, two years after her death, the company is taking its advocacy work to a whole new level with the launch of the three-year "Stop Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People" campaign, kicked off eight weeks ago in partnership with the organization ECPAT International (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes). The campaign aims to make sure that children's rights are secure, and that governments are held accountable for their contributions toward that goal.

"A lot of people do not realize the extent of the problem," Sophie Gasperment, The Body Shop's Global CEO told me last week in a quiet moment after she spent a hectic day discussing this issue with other anti-sex-trafficking activists and advocates at the at the fifth annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI).

The extent of the problem? According to UNICEF, over 1.2 million children are trafficked globally for labor and sex each year. Of those, the organization estimates that a million are bought and sold as sex slaves.

And yes, I did indeed just say "slaves." At one of CGI's many discussion sessions, Luis C. de Baca, Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. State Department, told the assembled business, government and philanthropic leaders that collectively, we are still working on the project started by the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

"We are delivering on a promise made 146 years ago by President Lincoln," he said. "The 13th Amendment is a living responsibility that all of us share."

He noted that last year there were only 3,000 trafficking prosecutions worldwide, despite the fact that millions of people are enslaved. Grave under the bright lights of the conference room, he said, "This has to shame all of us."

Soft Hands Kind Heart

A few days before she died in 2007, Roddick made clear to The Body Shop's leadership that she was keen to see the business take on the challenge of addressing child sex trafficking. It's a tall order in a world so in denial that we usually use euphemisms to talk about the issue. "Euphemisms," Mr. de Baca said, "give us an excuse to look away."

However, Gasperment was not intimidated. "It's not the first time that The Body Shop has tried to tackle a difficult issue, or a sensitive issue," she told me. "We've just campaigned for three years on domestic violence, and that was not very easy either."

But come on, child sex slavery? I'd say that's a bit more than just a "difficult issue." Then again, its very extremity could be its strength as a cause. Shelley Simmons, The Body Shop's director of brand communications and values, is sure that once people engage with the issue, "there's no going back for them. They want to learn and know more and they want to know how they can support it. The level of awareness is so low that I think people think it just doesn't happen. And that's a fundamental problem. That's why we're so excited to be launching the campaign."

The initiative is a robust endeavor that respects the high stakes of the situation. At a press conference last week at CGI, Gasperment unveiled the initial element of the three-year effort. The Body Shop will collaborate with ECPAT on creating "Progress Cards," country-by-country reports that identify gaps in each state's apparatus for protecting children from trafficking and sexual exploitation. ECPAT will collect and validate data on key indicators from its extensive global network of organizations and individuals working to eliminate child sex trafficking and from UN reports and other sources.

The Body Shop staff will distribute the cards to customers through the company's network of 2,500 stores in over 60 markets around the world, along with leaflets, info packets and other campaign materials. Posters featuring the campaign's "No No Hand" logo will hang in store windows and behind checkout counters. Customers will be invited to join the campaign's Facebook page. And best of all for us lotion-inclined individuals, a special "Soft Hands Kind Heart" hand cream (which smells great, incidentally) will be on sale, all proceeds of which support ECPAT's efforts.

Child vs. Cow

As the campaign progresses, customers can keep up on how countries are doing and take action to urge things in the right direction. Carmen Madrinan, Executive Director of ECPAT International appreciates that partnering with a business amplifies her organization's message.

"As an NGO specialized in the field, we work with a completely different population," she told me during a break from the CGI whirlwind. "We work with grassroots organizations. We have a network of children who have survived sexual exploitation with whom we work directly. But we don't have the reach to the public that The Body Shop has, the ordinary Main Street public."

And Main Street desperately needs education on this issue. At the press conference on human trafficking shortly after I spoke to Madrinan, a reporter (from the moon, apparently) asked a question about the difference between illegal and "legal slavery." On the stage, actress Julia Ormond, a prominent anti-trafficking activist, looked like she had swallowed a frog, and de Baca leapt to the microphone to set the guy straight.

I had already heard the spiel from Madrinan: "According to international law, there is absolutely no way a child can consent under any circumstances to being exploited, even if they're deceived, even if there's some perception that they have agreed."

Unfortunately, however, in today's world it is all too easy to abscond with children. "If you have an adult crossing a border, usually there is some element of checking," Madrinan said. "There may be some vetting of the credentials of that person. Whereas if it's a child with an adult, oftentimes the assumption is that the adult is a responsible adult for that child. In many parts of that world, the way we conceptualize children as belonging to the adult allows for an easy transition for children to disappear and to be trafficked with much greater ease."

The scale of the problem is reflected in how cheaply one can procure such a kidnapped child. At the anti-trafficking discussion session, Kailash Satiyarthi, Chairman of the Global March Against Child Labor, related an incident that occurred earlier this month during a march for children's rights in Nepal. There were child survivors of trafficking marching with him, and he overheard one ask the other how much she was sold for. The little girl responded that her price had been $40. Someone asked the kids if they knew how much a cow costs in Nepal. They didn't. The answer? $200 to $250.

"I was almost crying, listening to this," Satiyarthi said. "I was so ashamed."

The Bravest Thing You Can Do

Experts worry that the global economic crisis is spurring an increase in trafficking, especially concerning society's most vulnerable: children.

"We're in a very serious economic crisis, which is extremely worrying," Madrinan told me. "Much of the impact of that is that the most vulnerable who were on the margin and barely surviving are now pushed beyond that margin."

And the more children are involved in the system, the more behind the global community gets in its efforts to mount an appropriate response. Madrinan mentioned that the U.S. has only three facilities dedicated to addressing the needs of child survivors of sex trafficking. "You can imagine what it's like in other countries if that's the case here," she said.

These are children, however, who have very special needs. Madrinan described how kids in these "criminal environments" become tough, angry and difficult to manage and relate to. They are usually psychologically and physically traumatized, maladjusted and distrustful. "Survival from sexual exploitation is probably one of the bravest things you do as a human being," she said.

One of the other brave things one can do, of course, is stand up for those -- like these children -- who desperately need someone to speak on their behalf.

Gasperment, like any good CEO, knows her customers and is certain they will respond to the campaign. "It's not the only reason that people shop with us, but certainly when people shop there they do expect that we have that edge," she said. As of Wednesday night, the company had already sold 165,000 "Soft Hands Kind Heart" hand creams.

Gasperment sees her own role as a facilitator of others' activism. "The key thing is that you use your skills to make a difference," she said. "I think that's what magical. I'm not an NGO person, I'm not an activist, but I know how to run a business. And if I can do that well, it helps. So I think that's wonderful."

 

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